Tiocfaidh Ár Lá

Joe wrapped himself in the night, letting the darkness fall around him and caress his scarred face with velvet softness. No lover would ever touch him so again. None had in the twenty-five years since the black-and-tans had sliced him from mouth to ear and then made him scream to tear the gashes wider. The Unionist soldiers, traitors to their homeland, had marked him so he'd be easy to spot, easier to arrest the next time. He'd fled instead of taking that chance. He pulled his uniform hat lower and walked on, not wanting to think about the nightmare he'd left behind in Ireland.

He loved winter best. The high collar of his uniform coat and a scarf hid the worst of his face. Summer was a trial, bringing short-sleeved uniforms that showed the other scars as well. He finished his rounds, everything was safe and secure at Amalgamated Conglomerated Incorporated tonight. Joe Colson was on the job.

He made his way to the break room and saw the night programmer was already there with a cup of coffee, a sandwich, and a fat paperback with a woman in armor on the front. He never knew how someone would react to the first sight of him. He liked it when he cornered some problem person and saw their terror as they stared at his mangled face. But ordinary people gawked. They looked away. They asked awkward questions.

Joe squared his shoulders. He had as much right to a break as the kid did. He strode in, pretending he looked normal, acting like he was supposed to be there.

The boy, surely he didn't shave more than three times a week, glanced up as Joe walked to the coffee pot. "It's swill tonight. Better take your chances with the Coke machine." He drank a mouthful and grimaced for emphasis.

"Coffee's free," Joe said and poured himself a cup. Facing the notoriously temperamental soda machine, which dispensed what ever it felt like rather than what was pushed, was not on Joe's agenda for the night. He got his own lunch bag out of his locker and heated up the left-over tuna casserole in the microwave. He sipped the coffee and found out the kid was right. The coffee tasted charred and bitter.

The night programmer kept reading, eating his sandwich with one hand. He didn't stare or ask awkward questions. Joe decided the kid might be okay.

The kid, Ryan Hart according to his badge, was there every night about the time Joe took his break. He'd either come in just after Joe got settled, or finish up and leave about ten minutes into Joe's break. They never overlapped completely.

Joe looked forward to seeing what Ryan was reading. The Amazon had given way to a rocket ship. The rocket ship became zombies. The zombies turned into a man and woman in a clench. The man and woman ended up as two women, who changed into two men. Apparently, Ryan was not the fussy sort and read anything that came to hand.

They didn't chat. The kid acknowledged him, and then ate and read and left. That suited Joe just fine. One night, Joe got his sandwich from his locker and set it on the table. His hand was on the coffee pot handle when a voice said, "I wouldn't do that if I was you."

Joe turned around, coffee pot in hand, his nerves on high alert. The scalding liquid made a good improvised weapon. The kid stood in the doorway, holding two cardboard cups of coffee and his own lunch.

"I've got something a lot better." He set the cups and bag on the table. "It's just black, but I have creamer and sugar if you want."

Joe set the coffee pot down and then brought his bag to the table. "Black's fine. Thank you." He liked the kid's voice, cheerful and eager.

"I know I like some crank about this hour. Debugging legacy code makes my eyes cross around three o'clock." He took out a peanut butter sandwich and his book. He was almost done with the sexy tiger book, and Joe wondered what he'd be reading next.

The coffee was very good, better than the sandwich deserved.

"I'm Ryan," The kid said the next night as he set the coffee down. "You like muffins? They were out of doughnuts."

Joe looked at it and the bag he set beside it. "Do I look hungry?" he asked.

Ryan shrugged as if it didn't matter. "I had the craves for sweet. Thought it'd be nice to share. Mom always taught me not to eat in front of people."

Joe picked up the bag and took out a blueberry danish with slightly smushed icing drizzled all over its flaky crust. "Thanks. Your mom raised you right. Name's Joe."

Ryan smiled and ate his chicken salad sandwich, jalapeno cheese curls, and danish; his nose buried in the slim trade paperback with the nearly naked young man on the cover.

Joe ate, keeping his eyes mostly on his own food, but stealing occasional glances at the boy. Ryan had pretty green eyes, a mop of brown hair that might have started the night combed, but now looked like many fingers had been run through it, and a face almost as delicate as a woman's. He didn't need to fall for a kid half his age, especially a good looking one. Ryan might not even be gay.

Joe kept studying Ryan through his lowered eyes, pretending to be more interested in last night's spaghetti than in his companion. He caught Ryan looking over the top of the paperback at him twice, staring as if cataloging Joe's looks, and then returning to his spy thriller.

"So, whatcha reading now?" Joe asked, trying to be casual.

Ryan jumped, looking guilty and very cute. He blushed a moment and mumbled, "Gay spies. The writing's really good. The author gets pretty tense sometimes."

"I like westerns myself," Joe said, and finished his spaghetti.

"I see you making your rounds," Ryan said. "It looks so lonely out there. And you must get cold in the winter."

"And hot in the summer. But it suits me. Not many people around."

Ryan nodded. "I know, right? That's why I work nights. I get distracted too easily by everyone around during the day." He finished his sandwich. "That, and I am biologically incapable of rising before nine in the morning. Damn near failed high school, and I did fail that first period English class."

The confession startled Joe into a soft laugh. "So did I."

Ryan gave him a smile and gathered up the trash. He picked up Joe's empty coffee cup too and threw it away. He paused at the door on his way back to whatever he did on the computer all night. "Night, Joe, see you tomorrow."

"The usual time." Joe gave him a nod instead of a smile. He saved the smile for those caught trespassing.

"It's a date then," Ryan said with a grin, turning pink to his ears as he ducked out of sight.